Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
This study uses various critical approaches to analyze James Whale's 1932 film, The Old Dark House, and to some extent, the J. B. Priestley novel, Benighted, upon which it is based. The greatest difference between the two works is in their endings—the character Penderel dies in the novel but survives in the film version. The film also emphasizes the plot more than the characters, cutting much of the novel's character-developing monologues. This sacrifices, as well, much of Priestley's social commentary. The film nevertheless has more depth to its characters than many plot-oriented films of the period.
The Old Dark House fits into the horror genre, and it is pervaded by the common generic themes of danger and fear. Other ideas, such as isolation and alienation are also treated, however, expressed primarily through the character development in both the novel and the film. A major theme is the idea of confinement as a means of escaping danger, reversed at the end when characters leave the confines of the old house.
The film contains numerous possibilities for symbolic interpretation using mythic-archetypal and Freudian concepts, but much of this is open to speculation. The film also has possible homosexual overtones in the characters of the house's residents, although this may or may not have been intentional.
Technically, The Old Dark House is an average film which uses standard functional devices to tell the dramatic story, but it does contain a few effective shots and scenes. Rather slow-starting, it builds to an effective crisis and climax, and improves upon the novel in its handling of dramatic tension. It uses no musical accompaniment on the soundtrack and relies heavily on dialogue throughout much of its length. When it is compared with other films of its genre from the same period, The Old Dark House is found to contain strong photography and competent editing.
Parallel elements—specifically the use of an old, dark house, an insane antagonist, and a mute servant—show up in several other films made the same year as The Old Dark House.
Whale's sense of humor—strange, very dry, and often elusive—is present throughout the film. The Old Dark House represents a turning point in the type of humor Whale used in his films of the horror genre.
The humor of The Old Dark House, in combination with its character development and possibilities for symbolic interpretation rank it among the best horror/thriller films of the 1930s, and one of James Whale's best pictures— second only to The Bride of Frankenstein.
Jacobs, Christopher P., "A Critical Appraisal of James Whale's The Old Dark House" (1980). Theses and Dissertations. 2540.